Things to Consider

Mitigating Problems in Large Worship Spaces - Part 2

June 16, 2009


Read Part 1 of this 2-part article.

Challenges and Paths Forward

Saint Mary's Cathedral, Killarney, IrelandIn the first place, it would be my contention that in a project of any size, gathering knowledge, assembling the best possible professional team, and mobilizing the participation of the community will go a long way toward resolving the issues that are inherent in planning a worship space. There are always many realities to balance, voices to be heard, and priorities to set. It is easy to want to dedicate resources to “product” or “bricks and mortar” rather than the people and expertise that can help the project move smoothly. Communities, especially large ones, that resist engaging appropriate professionals, from liturgical consultants to fundraising consultants to architects and engineers, risk imperiling their projects even before they start. Also, I hope to point out things that large worship spaces can do well, if we allow them! These qualities can often mitigate perceived problems or challenges.

Challenge One: The Planning Process Itself

Engaging a large community in a conversation about its worship space is clearly not an easy task. Many communities may well entrust the decision-making process (and consequently, the learning and formation process) to a small group or groups. Building or renovating worship spaces present parishes with likely once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for liturgical and theological formation. If the only participation requested or required of the community is paying for the project, what is gained? Engaging a qualified liturgical consultant and architect/planner can help the community to prepare for the task of actually planning, building (or renovating), and utilizing the space.

It is possible to engage the community all along the way, from generating an idea to carrying through on a project. In parishes and other communities where this happens, there is usually a much higher degree of ownership and investment in the project. The size of the community should not deter from the desire to engage as many people in the community who are willing to participate.

Challenge Two: Scale


Large spaces have the potential to impress us and lift us. While the NBA championship could be played in a gym seating 3,000 people and shown on pay-per-view, there is something about the energy of 20,000 fans that cannot be replicated in a smaller space. Conversely, there will be a distinctly different environment in the stadium where 5,000 are scattered among 40,000 seats. While the activity done in the space may be the same, the atmosphere created will be different. That’s not to say that small communities or small buildings don’t have an energy all their own.  They do! But it may be a different energy, and the task in a large space is to make sure that it can work well for the community that will worship in it.

Of course, everything in the building needs to be adjusted for the scale of the space. I still remember seeing a space (which seated more than 1,500) in which the only sculpture apart from the crucifix was a small statue less than 36 inches tall! The opposite extreme is possible, too. Many of us have seen altars and ambos so monumental that they dwarf those who stand at them in the exercise of their ministry.

One will need to consider also that the large worship space will not always need to accommodate large assemblies. One thinks of funerals, weddings, daily mass and daily prayer, devotional exercises and other activities that may well require seating a few or a few hundred people. It seems obvious, since many communities do this already, but the inclusion of a small chapel may be vital for the large worship space’s success. In other words, it doesn’t need to bear the weight of all of the community’s worship needs. This may help resolve environmental concerns, as well, in that a small space will require much less energy to operate.

Challenge Three: Forming Those Who Use the Space (The “People” Side of Scale)

The consideration of those who will use a space often is at the bottom of the priority list in planning. But when spaces don’t work well, it is not always the fault of the designers and planners. Large spaces can change the ways we go about worship. For example, a presider in a small space may be comfortable with a casual approach that works well in a smaller space. But the large space may demand more formality, larger gestures, significant vesture, and great vocal skill. Some deficiencies can be remedied by technologies; others will need to be learned and practiced.

The same can be said for others who minister in the liturgy. For a large space to work well, movement and gesture will need to be rehearsed and evaluated. Otherwise, it can be perceived as sloppy or irreverent. In my experience, by this point in the design and building process, communities are often out of time, money, and energy to attend to these important details.

Challenge Four: Acoustics and Music

One of the clear advantages of a large space can be its acoustic. Large spaces, well designed, may possess a volume that lends itself to a rich acoustic. Of course, the challenge is to balance the voice of the assembly (spoken and sung) with the need to hear the word proclaimed or sung by a single individual. The inclusion of an acoustical consultant, who ideally is providing expertise and not selling equipment, can help to create this sort of an acoustic environment from the ground up. A community needs to realize that acoustical problems cannot always be solved with technologies. They need to be addressed in the very design of the space. The goal would be to create a space that allows each ministry, including that of the assembly, to function well in relationship to the others. The assembly needs to see and hear, to sing, and to allow the sounds of choir and instruments to lift its spirit!

Challenge Five: Movement 

Because the church gathers to celebrate the death and resurrection of the Lord, movement into, and out from, that activity cannot be simply expedient. That movement must be purposeful and thoughtful and even thought provoking. From outside the space, through the place of initial gathering, one could ask how this movement helps one confront the mysteries being remembered and celebrated. Large spaces give the opportunity to take advantage of this “bigness” and make the movement, the procession of the assembly something special. Significant space given to the baptismal font can help the community confront the mystery of its baptism. Temporary shrines can alert the assembly to important people and events. I’m not speaking here of bulletin boards, but of spaces calling us to prayer and remembrance, perhaps of women and men in the armed forces, missionaries from the parish at work somewhere, a saint on a feast day. Creating a path into and out of the worship space helps connect the mystery to our lives.

Hopefully, the large space also presents a community with the opportunity to enhance all the processions of the liturgy. Aisles wide enough to accommodate people of all abilities can be models here! Some of us walk into the church, some are carried, some process in groups (think families with children), some walk in grand processions, some are carried in caskets, some are in chairs and others with various kinds of assistance. All need adequate space to move, and large spaces can accommodate this so well with careful planning.

Of course, movement also includes that of all the ministers and members of the assembly. Large spaces may require large platforms that need to be easily accessible to all who need to reach them. Care should be taken that spaces allow easy movement for participants, even spaces for choirs and instrumentalists, who sometimes end up in rather discrete places almost apart from others.

Ambulatories are used very effectively in buildings large and small to move the assembly in and around the space. These ambulatories may well provide a unique processional space, especially as places for shrines and devotions.

Challenge Six: Devotional Space

In addition to chapels for smaller celebrations mentioned previously, larger spaces can lend themselves to wonderful spaces for devotion and shrines for patron saints. If large spaces for worship are wonderful for the energy they can create in Sunday worship, at other times, people of faith may crave the intimacy of a more intimate space, e.g., prayer in the presence of the reserved Sacrament, The Virgin Mary, or a favored saint. With the will and the resources, communities may create wonderful small chapel or shrines for personal prayer or small group prayer. One can think of the effectiveness of shrine and chapel spaces in very large churches such as the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. or the Basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome. Small spaces within the larger space can create a very harmonious and helpful environment.

Challenge Seven: Big Budgets

Last but not least, it is important to mention money. Large spaces may necessarily cost big dollars. It is worth remembering that our ancestors seventy-five or a hundred years ago spent significantly more on their church buildings in relative dollars than we do today. But large communities, well-organized and focused, can come together in amazing ways to support a project, especially if pastoral leaders are diligent in including the community in the planning process. There is no magical formula as every community is different, but the experience of fellow liturgical consultants is that greater involvement along the way in a project yields greater investment in the results of the planning.

Again, the use of wise and seasoned fund raising or development consultants can be invaluable in a successful project of any size.


These reflections are not meant to be exhaustive. They are also not so much academic as reflections on experience as a community leader and liturgical consultant. It is my conviction that large buildings are not problematic in and of themselves. In fact, they have many strengths that can be amplified with good planning, good usage, and ongoing reflection on how the buildings are serving the worship of the community. 

Read Part 1 of this 2-part article.

Rev. Robert J. Kropac is a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio and a liturgical consultant.

Photo: Saint Mary's Cathedral, Killarney, Ireland; provided by Padraíg McIntyre

[Return to top]